No, the Great Central Main Line is not an adequate alternative to HS2

London Marylebone. Image: Oxyman/Wikimedia Commons.

On 3 August, the Spectator published an article arguing that there was a superior alternative to building HS2: reopening the Great Central Main Line.

That line stretched from London Marylebone, through Rugby, Leicester, and Nottingham, to Sheffield and Manchester. It was closed under the Beeching cuts, on the grounds that it was largely a duplicate of the Midland Main Line, but much of the trackbed is still extant.

Reviving this route perhaps would cost less to build than HS2: some parts of it are still in mainline use. But it remains an inferior option, nonetheless.

A map of the Great Central network in 1903. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

For a start, the Great Central route would miss out two of the four key HS2 cities, Leeds and Birmingham. It would thus not fulfil one of the key purposes of HS2 – relieving the West Coast Main Line. Instead it would increase capacity on the Midland Main Line, probably the least important of the three north-south mainlines – something reflected in the fact that it still hasn't been electrified. (Cheers, Chris. No, we're not going to stop mentioning you, even though you've lost your job. Sorry.)

Also, why go to the trouble of building a new high-speed railway that misses out the UK's second city (Birmingham) and one of its fastest-growing (Leeds)? Instead, we get Rugby, Leicester, Nottingham, and Sheffield. These places are important – and desperately need better transport links – but it seems ridiculous to suggest that they are more important than Leeds and Birmingham.

HS2 will be faster, too. Whilst trains tend to dominate the market share for fast journeys when the journey itself takes less than 2hr30, only a few services – between London and Manchester, for example – are already fast enough to ensure a dominant market share. There is immense potential for onward journeys to Newcastle, Carlisle, Glasgow, and Edinburgh – places from which train travel to London and Birmingham does take longer than 2hr30. (Indeed, it takes longer to get to Birmingham from Newcastle than it does to get to London.)

HS2 services, using the HS2-only route to Manchester or Leeds and then moving onto classic sections of the rail network, will deliver real journey time reductions to these places, making rail travel more attractive for people living in the north-east, north-west, and Scotland. If we're building a whole new line, we might as well build it properly.

The Great Central would also still require expensive tunnelling beneath Nottingham and Leicester. In Leicester, almost all of the trackbed has been built on; in Nottingham, it's been taken over by trams. In Sheffield, things are simpler, but the route is also safeguarded for potential tram extensions. In this way, the Great Central route could in fact damage local transport.

To add to this, connections within cities will be awkward. Most of the big city stations on the Great Central route – Sheffield Victoria, Nottingham Victoria, Leicester Central, Rugby Central – have been closed and no longer exist. Transfers from these stations to others will be necessary anyway.


So is the Great Central route really a simpler alternative? The sections from London-Aylesbury and Manchester-Hadfield are also congested, and expensive and disruptive capacity improvements would be vital, probably including two additional tracks alongside these sections for intercity services. This alone would cost billions.

When you also consider that the original terminus, London Marylebone, has no spare capacity – In fact, no London terminus has any real spare capacity – and that land prices in London are astronomical, a London terminus for the new Great Central Main Line will cost more billions.

The final problem with the Great Central route is a less obvious one. The British public has something of an obsession with heritage railways: it's one of those strangely British things, like drinking tea, keeping vast numbers of pets, or constantly talking about the weather. The Great Central railway is one such heritage railway, with two sections of track still in use – one from Leicester to Loughborough, and another from just north of Loughborough to just south of Nottingham.

A major project has been underway for some years to reconnect the two halves, and the railway is somewhat unique as the only double-track heritage railway in the world operating. This project, with its 18 miles of track, would have to be torn apart. Think the British public are angry at the destruction of ancient woodland? Just wait until you break up a major heritage railway.

The Great Central line may still has a role to play – much of it could and should be reopened. Reopening the line from Rugby to London, for example, would be fairly simple, bar station improvements at both ends, and could increase capacity on the most congested section of the WCML – an easy win.

But it's not an adequate replacement for HS2, and it wouldn't end up being much cheaper either, with extensive tunnelling and compensation schemes needed anyway. HS2 is not perfect, and more stations are needed – but it remains the better option for the UK. The Great Central route is no real alternative.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.